I. THE SYMMETRY
In the beginning, they told us that only babies born with a herringbone of downy fuzz running the full length of their spines carried the gene. Then it was the nostrils: if one was larger than the other. From there, it grew into a hysteria of symmetry. If one eye was squintier the baby was a carrier. One ear higher. One testicle smaller. Left side of the labia fatter. Oh, how Richard squirmed at this. To think of his daughter having labia; such a prickly word for his pure baby girl whom we’d designed one night on a whiz of bubbly wine and goat cheese, right down to her delicate parts. That area I engineered, being the woman and inherently more attuned to shades of pink, shapes of flower petals, and all. But, still, nothing was guaranteed. We’d upgraded her with Gene Purification, but so had the Kims and their baby never got to sleep in the room we’d helped them paint a dreamy color called Apple Flesh.
II. THE SISTER’S SISTER
By the second month of pregnancy, I convinced Richard to touch my belly. He didn’t believe she was in there yet and said it seemed a counting-your-chickens thing if he was to pour on affection without some hope it’d be reciprocated down the road. I’d married him for his chronic hesitancy, his safety-first insistence that one must approach every day as if it were a shoddy bridge on the brink of collapse. I supposed my attraction was a product of growing up in a family of believers. Any crazy conspiracy shuttled over tepid tea in the Together Hall of Sacred Heart Parish they believed. Quickly, though, I learned blood-born doubters like Richard doubted to the same belligerent end as believers believed. Even when she kicked at four months, he insisted it was indigestion. “You’ve been drinking powders again?” I had. A chelated mix of dehydrated cow hide and natural human growth hormone. Patti Marks in Book Club said a bunch of people including her older sister’s sister-in-law had taken it, and the fontanel, the soft spot on a newborn’s head where the two tectonic skull plates haven’t yet met, had been completely closed at birth. A blessing! Miracle! All this frantic intervention because the Doctor in Charge had announced that The Factor was no longer linked to faulty symmetry but to a too-pronounced fontanel. This determined carriers. Without a semiflexible head, labor obviously was more difficult; pushing out a bowling ball was no longer hyperbole but the new reality and rightfully shocking to mothers who’d delivered a baby before The Factor had become the ravage du jour. Though what did pain matter if we got to keep our babies? Richard doubted the link between food and our baby’s health, but even he was willing to gamble on this one.
III. THE FONTANEL
You never could be sure who was on what side. You’d pin someone for a Factor denier, then the next thing you know they’re saying The Factor is destroying common decency and How about you join me to march for stricter testing because Factor kids were slipping through like crazy. Problem is, they said, too many mothers are giving birth at home and dodging the system. Richard and I weren’t deniers. We knew The Factor existed, just look at his nephew, an almost mute teenager with a cartoon girlfriend he himself coded. Look at the Kims. Their second baby had it too but somehow wasn’t caught; she’s now a kindergartner who can’t stand in a line or sit quietly and paste. Here’s the kicker: those were exactly the people I couldn’t confide in; any inquiry would reek of information gathering, illegal preparation, fluffing the nest to raise a Factor child. Really, the only people besides Richard whom I felt safe around were the Book Club crew: Jane Fontaine, Melissa Zu, and Patti. Jane was married to a sexy advertising career she refused to sacrifice to motherhood. Melissa and Patti had older teens about to leave for college; they worried about their future grandkids. Melissa gently questioned the tactics of the Doctor in Charge: I heard his grandkids’ fontanels weren’t measured. Patti said she read nurses were keeping Factor babies and that some were getting auctioned off to science to pay nurses a doctor’s salary. It’s what they’re earning now, you know. Jane, being creative, covered the qualitative. It’s all suspicious, she said. What if the nurse measuring has blurry vision, isn’t eating right, is in a hurry to clock out? What if there’s a whole other world where these babies are going and a countercivilization is underway to someday overtake us? We all laughed, though me least believably. It was a swelter outside and Patti’s air-conditioning was on the fritz, which left me sweating under the new layers of flesh I’d been hiding with baggy clothes. Didn’t they know the phones were listening and that talking brazenly like this might cause trouble? Baby Girl was counting on us to do the right thing. “Can we please talk about how stupid the plot is in this book?” The book honestly was as unimaginative as my wardrobe: rich grandees drinking dirty martinis and having nonsense outbursts, and, in the end, everyone flees the snooty little suburb. They agreed with me, except Jane thought the dialogue was fantastic. I asked who talks like that and she said everyone she knows. Not me, I told her. And without verbally agreeing, she agreed. Then somehow they drifted back to the fontanel and the new parameters the Doctor in Charge had issued yesterday, unbeknownst to me. Richard was usually the one to keep us updated. The plates cannot gap more than the width of a needle, Jane said. And not a knitting needle, a hypodermic, Patti added. As they debated, I read the Factor App alert I’d somehow missed: and if an acceptable gap presents at birth, it must give to the touch no more than a firm mattress and no less than an apple.
IV. THE TEENAGER
Toward the end of my second trimester, Baby Girl kicking as if someone were going to come snatch her soon, Richard and I threw around the idea of moving. Or I did, and Richard shot it down. Where are we going to go? A bunker? My parents’ attic? True. My data had already been uploaded to the Pregnancy Collective; I was getting pushed maternal memes, invites to church services near me, my daily radon and viral exposure count, ads for therapists who treated Factor-related grief. Nowhere was off the radar. Remember the von Trapps? he said. What about the Souters? I added. They’d spent Janice Souter’s entire pregnancy in a remote Costa Rican hut, only to be arrested after the baby wailed during Will Souter’s unmuted Zoom call. In a funk after our conversation, I turned our last two shrunken zucchini into bread and delivered a loaf to our new neighbors across the hall, Lyle and Ivan Cook. Handsome men, a pairing I told Jane I’d be happy to wriggle between. They’d moved in a week prior with a teenage daughter who we knew off the bat was a carrier. The downcast eyes, shredded clothes, a frightening indifference to the general inertia of the world. I told them one day how lucky they were to have had their daughter when they did, insinuating that in today’s scape she’d not have made it to a nice apartment in Parkview Village. In their rapid, silent nodding I read that they’d had this conversation before and it’d actually been a fight. One day at the community pool, I asked the skinny teenager her name. She merely lifted her eyes off her device and tried to look at me, but was off by at least a foot, her empty gaze locked behind me, likely on the magenta pool raft. Factor kids were drawn to bobbles, instant gratification, jarring colors—things absent on a human face. I never did get her name, but I got a look into what Richard and I would be dealing with if our girl was born a carrier and then I wasn’t sure who was luckier, Lyle and Ivan, or me and Richard.
V. THE BLOOD TEST
Richard, who’d either started believing in the power of food or was just resigned to doing something other than fretting silently, was panfrying pasture eggs when the alert came over. The Doctor in Charge announced an update to The Factor diagnostic criteria: a blood test would replace the fontanel measure. Immediately headlines hailed the breakthrough. Science Speaks for Our Children. The Factor: Going, Going, Gone. The Doctor in Charge said the blood test, though more expensive than a new set of brakes and not covered by most health insurance, would substantially eliminate false positives, which critics nailed at or above sixty percent. Over 22,000 newborns had been wrongly diagnosed due to improper needle placement and other not-yet-specified human blunders. Richard spanked the spatula on the pan. “Now what are they looking for, Ellie? A T cell mooning the camera?” He swept the phone out of my hand, grazing my belly for the first time in a few weeks. Are you listening? he said. Obviously, yes, but Richard needed confirmation. I nodded. Are you OK with that, he said, this arbitrary culling? Richard and I had never cried together, but it felt like something we should have been doing more often. I’m not OK with any of this, I told him, but I’m scared as hell. Do you want a kid like that girl? I looked at him, his burble of curls up front, that pronounced nose a girl would need to get fixed. I guess we want different things, he said.
VI. THE SECRET MEETING
We were perfect candidates, our New Doctor said, for clinical intervention. He had nice things to say about our dispositions. It’s not for everyone; some soon-to-be parents aren’t equipped to raise a Factor child. But you are. He looked primarily at Richard as he made this final analysis based on a brief questionnaire that included a query into our sunsetting sex life. Factor kids, he reiterated, often have no boundaries and will walk into bedrooms unannounced, make insulting remarks, and send scathing texts with zero remorse, even tell a parent where to park, when to go to bed. The doctor explained that dealing with them puts tremendous pressure on parents, breaks up marriages, destroys the family dynamic. This is why we’ve ended up here, he said, with God no longer at the wheel, as they say. But not for him to judge; he was neither a God person nor a people person, only a justice person. He would make arrangements for a “clean” blood draw at the hospital. In other words, even if your baby was a carrier, nobody would know. She stays with you. Richard, unfolding and refolding the nondisclosure paperwork we’d had to sign before entering the doctor’s mid-century–designed meshed Faraday cage, requested specifics. What kind of nurse? Where does the blood come from? The answers appeared to appease Richard: A well-compensated nurse. From a pig. But what if our girl turns out to be a carrier, since as you know, the telltale signs don’t manifest until around puberty? I asked. The doctor assured me that he was friends with at least a dozen excellent therapists.
VII. THE BUCKETS
We’d made it through the entire hour of gushing over our new favorite unsappy memoir, The Saddest Story Ever, when Jane brought out her phone. This, she said, is where they’re going. She pivoted her screen toward us. Looks like a ranch, I said. Jane said, Wishful. It’s no more a ranch than you’re a farmer. The rest of the photos—taken by a hospital nurse turned whistleblower—I still can’t describe in detail without wanting to die and wake up a simple life-form on another planet. Ruddy newborns staged under fluorescents. Tubing snaked through every tender opening. Nurses draped head to toe so as to evade identification. Melissa and Patti suggested I seek preemptive counseling in case mine ended up there, as it did appear, judging by the rich flush in my cheeks, that I was going to birth a carrier. I asked how they knew I was pregnant and Jane said when I stopped wearing my slutty skirts, but the dead giveaway was my hands, one writhing inside the other, whenever the subject of The Factor came up. Melissa said initially she supposed it was probably hard to let go of a baby, but in recent weeks her mind had opened; she’d been reading a lot, watching a lot, and had decided it was the right thing to do, considering one Factor child equaled too many Factor kids down the line. Patti said her friend’s cousin was grief-stricken in the first few months after her baby was taken but had since become an advocate and wrote beautifully about the grace of letting go when things weren’t meant to be. And have you heard, Melissa asked, the Doctor in Charge is proposing early rapid tests? This way nobody would have to endure nine long months only to go home empty-handed. Jane, pushing back her cuticles, said, I just feel like we’re running around mad with buckets catching a thousand drips when what we need to do is repair the fucking roof. Metaphor was clearly lost on Patti and Melissa, but not me. Exactly, I yelled. It’s the devices. I felt like Jane and I bonded a second before a tsunami of heat floored me. I’d dangerously exposed myself. In a gross sweat, I flipped to the chapter where the author described her face after her disfiguring accident as “kindergarten art only my parents could ever love.”
VIII. THE MORAL COMPASS
In the beginning, they thought it was charming, this generation’s viral vanity. Kids were merely super-expressive exemplars of confidence. Look at them: dancing for strangers to watch and sharing innermost thoughts and family cancers on live feeds. How brave! How vulnerable! For at least a few years the talk cycle leaned positive like this and then it didn’t. Richard pinned the quick switch in sentiment to the tragic moment when America’s Digital Sweetheart filmed her suicide. The GoPro she strapped to her head when she jumped from the Golden Gate sold at private auction for millions. Headlines streamed: Gene Linked to Virulent Apathy. Humanity in Danger of Losing Humanity. Now or Never: Feds Act to Halt Spread of Genetic Factor. Shortly thereafter, most of the nation, my parents certainly among them, formed a moral coalition—I forget the formal name, it’s since gone under—and so began the construction of the Moral Compass, which sits today in the dead center of the Reflecting Pool at the National Mall. Two hundred thousand pounds of concrete and rebar blessed at the Vatican and cast into a giant forefinger pointing at the new magnetic north: heaven. The bronze plaque’s inscription, before its defacing by a counter group, read: From him we hail. For him we cleanse.
IX. PRETTY FORGERY
In the seventh month, Baby Girl was a fully hearing person and Richard’s and my bickering was surely compounding her worry. The Doctor in Charge had expedited an experimental rapid urine test, and despite the widespread shortage and steep price tag, Richard had pulled a back-alley, totally uncharacteristic renegade move to get his hands on one. Just pee on the stick and we’ll know in fifteen minutes, he said. We’ll know what? I said. There were only a few things I wanted in fifteen minutes: dinner, my car serviced, and a back massage from Richard. I didn’t need a quick answer to my baby’s fate, which might or might not be the same fate Richard had in mind. We were afraid of different monsters. We were becoming afraid of each other. We’ll know if we even need the “clean” blood draw, he said. Maybe we won’t have to cheat the system if we know she’s not a carrier, and, anyway, I’d rather play by the rules. I conceded that I did too. Rules were made to keep everyone safe, I added, though how he didn’t detect my pandering I have no idea. He was too trusting and I should still be paying penance for taking advantage. Which had become more habit than I’d like to admit. In fact, the night we coded her, when he turned away to clear bubbles from his throat, I’d entered both BEY and GEY for her eyes. I wanted Baby Girl to come out with one of my blue and one of Richard’s brown. I’d also coded for dainty feet and paid extra for the Disney princess nose, which Richard adamantly opposed, but I’m a homely experiment in natural gene selection and rightfully obsessed with pretty forgery. Will you please? he begged, wagging the test package at me. I looked out past our balcony into the parking lot where the cocktail-hour sun beamed off solar towers. The skinny girl was sitting on a curb weeping, her two fathers circling the asphalt around her, talking, cheerleading. She stood up as tall as both of them stacked and threw her phone at the handsomer one. It struck him in the mouth and as his husband tended to the blood, she sped off in their truck. I looked back at Richard, who was plucking stubborn gray hairs from his forearms, looking like a scared man who could use a yes. Fine, I told him, for you. But even if it comes back positive, promise me you’ll keep cooking good food.
X. THE WING
I recall Richard being a bit off all the next day, all day. We’d been invited by his boss to a F*@k the Factor fund-raising gala. This was the guy who hadn’t given Richard a raise in five years, but Richard, I guess, admired the implicit bolshie attitude. As we pulled up to the Natural History Museum, where gala attendees would gather on the rooftop for a starry night of forced natter, Richard started to hyperventilate. Should we do another test? he asked. False positives happen. Your urine might have been too concentrated. I hardly saw you drinking water yesterday. I told him maybe all the tests were rigged. Have you considered that, Richard? Oh, he said, now you’re a population-control conspiracy person? You said it yourself first, I said. I could tell he was in his head practicing the biofeedback he’d been studying. Finally, he caught his breath. Do you feel something weird in there? he asked, gesturing at my belly. I told him that that’s what being pregnant was, a constant state of weirdness. He shucked off the nice linen jacket he’d rented and slung it over his forearm. With his free arm, he grabbed my hand and led us back toward the museum. We’d been living with the news for only a day and while I suspected it all along, it’d thrown Richard for a loop. Anyway, it was easier letting Richard do the worrying. Sharing my fears would translate as a bad audition; I’d spent my life neutralizing hysteria and every true mood muscle in me had atrophied. At the museum’s double doors, which were fabricated into prehistoric jaws, he stopped us. People might know, he said, running a clammy finger under the strap of my tight blue gown. True. Factor babies were typically carried high, and Baby Girl was up under my ribs. I suggested we take a walk around the park and Richard looked as relieved as he had the night in bed I promised him he’d never end up with a wife in a mom bod. Implants, metabolism vaccines, fat relocation—whatever it took, he was guaranteed an enduring hottie. Under a canopy of fiberboard maples strewn in white market lights, we walked hip tight. A homeless family waded in the illuminated Piazza de Angela Sagrada Fountain. The fortune-tellers and glass-jewelry makers and henna-tattoo artists and snow-cone carts had all been put away for the night. The tourists were hunkered down in their hotels until tomorrow rang in bright and promising again. I thought of Jane’s adding to her comment the other day, Why don’t we just shut off all the devices and see what happens to The Factor? Yeah, right, Patti said. No way would that fly, Melissa said. Everyone despises daylight saving time and we couldn’t even vote that out. I looked at Richard looking at the gull bopping aslant down the footpath. It had a bum wing and seemed to keep forgetting that it couldn’t fly. I’m sorry, I said. For what? he said. It was a cool night for November, much like my Novembers as a kid, and for a minute I was unmarried, unpregnant, kneeling in the Del Mar sand, trying to dig my way to a hell a little less hellish than what I was living. I said finally, Sorry for us having a Factor kid. We don’t have a Factor kid, he said. You understand? And if you say it again—he put his jacket back on and walked ahead toward the car.
XI. THE PROBLEM
I had no intention of telling Jane. But of course she could get anyone talking carte blanche and by the time you realized you’d succumbed to her suave powers, all secrets had been spilled. Jesus, that’s awful, she said. But the good news is, you know. You can prepare, or stop preparing. Shit. I’m not saying the right thing. Sorry. I told her not to be because we had a plan. I should have shut up there and not shared our doctor’s name or the details about the scheduled clean blood draw, a sidestep she’d not heard about. Thank God there’s an option, she said, her foot wagging to a bass beat playing on the stereo in her flat, and then she gently nudged my mind elsewhere—another gift of hers. So, pig blood? she said. Makes you want to stop eating them if they didn’t crisp up so good like they do. A false laugh; Jane only played liked she was shallow because past the facade I felt wholesome, deep thought at work. I told her pig red blood cells are almost identical to humans’. She made a face before dropping a hint that she knew I was skeptical of the plan. I think all this is Richard’s wish, she said, not yours. Contributing to the problem isn’t you. For as long as I’ve known you, you’ve been a problem solver. She’d only known me for two of my thirty-seven years. Nor had I solved more than a handful of problems in my entire life, most of which she was unaware of. Cutting ties with my family was the first, followed by becoming a AAA gold member, then figuring out where on the balcony to put my hanging plants without blocking our view. Just think about it, Ellie, she said. It’s not just about you.
XII. THE DISMANTLING
In my eighth month, Richard stopped eating. One night, while I finished off the hamburger casserole (loyal to the bone, he’d kept his promise to cook), I told him death by starvation was the slowest route possible and that it was no way to protest anymore since people did it on the regular every day. Celebrities were paid millions to shed half their body weight to play prima ballerinas or cancer patients, and Factor teenagers were virally documenting their paths to anorexia. He said that he simply wasn’t hungry and the problem with society today was a colossal failure to listen—to intuition, to our partners, to our parents, to our bodies. Stomachs rumble, he said, to cue you to eat and mine hasn’t made a peep in weeks. We’d met with the New Doctor again that morning and he’d assured us that the few couples who’d been caught cheating on blood tests and arrested had been careless, hesitant. You must insist that the nurse with the red bow in her hair draws the blood, he said, before gelling up my belly to listen to Baby Girl’s heartbeat. That’s your nurse, the only nurse. You got me? We both nodded, my nodding the most emphatic to make clear to Richard, who stared blankly, that I wasn’t backing out. That I wouldn’t do what I did in the final hour before our wedding and swap the “Wedding March” for “Purple Rain.” I heard his stomach and offered him my last bite, which he took reluctantly. The plants on the porch swiveled in a wind forecast to bring an inch of rain, a joyous pattering on the roof we’d heard only once in our six married years. But something besides hunger was on his mind. “You got a raise?” I asked. His boss had kept him late at work; it wasn’t a tone-deaf question. No, he said, I’ve been pink-slipped for that piece I wrote. Richard had penned an op-ed for the State Enquirer. The gist was we’ve made a terrible mistake in punishing children for The Factor and it’s not too late to pause and rethink strategy. He used the analogy of an airline pilot not turning back in bad weather because he’s committed to landing at his destination. A combination of ego and investment in time and fuel blinds him to the real hazards. The plane crashes. Richard said his boss was upset by the aviation metaphor, since the company was, of course, the largest manufacturer of jet turbines, and perhaps cruise ships would have been a safer bet. Richard ran his finger through the tomato sauce on my plate, then wiped it clean on a napkin. I haven’t told you, he said, but I’ve been talking to the skinny girl across the hall and she’s perfectly normal. I’d have probably believed him in the beginning, but by then I was heavy in doubt. I was doubting Richard, his increasingly more extreme stance on The Factor. His grating insistence that so many smart people—doctors and scientists and top government officials with families—could be steering us so wrong. We were at odds, and isolation had historically helped me make terrible decisions. Though, still, what he wanted was far more dangerous than what I’d decided was best. While he was sleeping that night, I poured out the last of my chelated powders and then dismantled Baby Girl’s room. Ripped down her polka-dot drapes, yanked one abstract shape at a time off the mobile dangling over the crib. The “You Are My Sunshine” decal tore off in almost one piece, only the “ne” stayed put, which for me meant Richard and I were destined to remain a twosome. When I finished, it looked like a kind of artwork only its creator could love. On the balcony, staring at Lyle and Ivan’s empty parking space #302, I called the girls.
XIII. THE COMMITTED
In the beginning, I could never have guessed how it would end. Certainly Richard didn’t anticipate waking to an apartment empty of his agreeable wife. Wishing for morning dew, moisture of any kind, to revive my chalky mouth, I met Jane, Patti, and Melissa at the mini-mart on Garden Road. Each of us bought an antibiotic-infused water and a pack of the cigarette brand we smoked occasionally in college with men who went down on us every night. From there, Jane leading the way in dawn’s early light (the feeling was undeniably patriotic), we walked to the barren field behind the old Beanery Coffee. As of last year, it was the last standing roaster in the country before it too was deemed a place of excessive nonwork gathering and then shut down. Yet you could still feel the buzzy brainpower of legions who’d sat and typed to the grind of beans. Dotting the field like crop seeds once did—so many pregnant women, a swath of protruding bellies and swollen ankles and sounds of sore backs. Melissa whispered that her phone said over a thousand were attending. Jane whispered that I was doing the right thing, and how empowering to take matters into my own hands. I don’t normally support this sort of thing, she said. It reminds me of those cult people who put on white shoes and drank rat poison while waiting for a ride on the Hale-Bopp comet. But this is so different, she added. This makes so much more sense, Patti said. You’re restoring righteousness to the world. You’re a savior, Ellie, Melissa added. Right then, I wanted to tell Richard the same thing. I supposed he always wanted to hear that from me and while I thought I was generous with compliments, I knew then I’d failed him in that department. “What are we waiting for?” I asked. The three moved in close to me, very sisterly. “They’ll call your name,” a woman behind me said. Her voice shook but with what I sensed was relief. The wait was over. I felt it too. One in five babies, despite the blood test, despite a negative rapid test, was getting diagnosed after birth and whisked away. Women who spoke up were disappearing too. The Latina actress in that True Crime Series, won a bunch of awards, gone days after suggesting that The Factor might not be a condition kids were born with, but a syndrome we were creating. Nurture, not nature, is to blame, she wrote. An easy fix was Richard’s unscientific take. Turn off the goddamned screens, he said. And I’d suggested he try to remember when we were holy. Remember those days? He looked me up and down as if I were an icy mountain he had to climb. So I spelled it out. Richard, take a look at the skinny girl who had caused her fathers such grief. They’d had a fistfight at the pool one afternoon over her refusal to make eye contact, and the handsomer one, who argued it was important to see his daughter’s face, fell and hit his head on the deck. He was still in a coma and I thought of him again as I stood in the field. I thought of which one of us, me or Richard, would end up with head trauma if we had this baby. With my foot, I drew an infinity sign over and over in dirt so lifeless even ragweed had stopped trying to root. They called my name. Jane nudged me forward and I took my place in a long, winding queue of women, most of them in loose-fitting dresses. I tried to stand as still as possible, to appear confident. Therapists were standing by to remove anyone who fidgeted, who appeared to inhabit the mindset of a questioner, a doubter, a dissenter, a fearless speaker-upper. Only sympathizers. Only those who pledged allegiance without saying a word. Only those not cradling their bellies in fear were allowed the cleaner field option. When it was my turn, I opened my mouth as wide and hungry as an orca anticipating her squid and the Lieutenant Doctor in Charge placed the flat, thin pill on my outstretched tongue. While he chanted the inscription at the Moral Compass, I hummed “Purple Rain,” already feeling Richard split off from me. A dizzy rush, a cramp and release, and there he was, I could see him so clearly, back at home watching our plants sway in their crochet hammocks as the rain came, listening to the patter alone, wondering, like me, what belonged to us anymore.